Philemon lived in Colosse and was a convert to Christ thanks to Paul’s ministry. Philemon was not only leading home-based gatherings of believers but also had slaves who worked for him. As I’ll reiterate later, when we consider the culture of the Roman world, we shouldn’t be quick to modernize it to our own current ideals about slavery. One of Philemon’s slaves was a guy named Onesimus.
When Paul writes to the Colossians, he finishes with chapter 4 discussing the equity a master should have for his servants and vice versa. He does this because he introduces Onesimus as someone who is accompanying the delivery of this letter and he writes of Onesimus as a faithful and beloved brother in Christ. (Colossians 4:7-9)
Paul’s mention of Onesimus to the Colossians is important because word has probably gotten around about him. When Onesimus was under the dominion of Philemon, there was apparently some fall out. We aren’t told exactly what the issue was, but it was to the extent that Onesimus became “useless” to Philemon and perhaps Onesimus did something worthy of imprisonment as Onesimus comes to Christ in prison at the hand of Paul. Paul wants to write to Philemon specially because of the relationship Philemon and Onesimus had. Philemon needs to be prompted to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ by foregoing the past and accepting Onesimus in Christ.
Philemon 1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer, 1:2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house: 1:3 Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philemon met with an assembly (church) in his house with a few other named folks, Apphia and Archippus. Archippus is named in Colossians 4:17 as a minister in Colosse. Apphia is believed to either be the wife of Philemon or some close relative as it seems unlikely that Paul would address a personal/domestic matter in this letter in the audience of mere acquaintances.
This form of meeting was not foreign to the society of the time. Many “churches” were nothing more than home-based gatherings as it was understood that the church was a collection of PEOPLE, not buildings. Buildings have not been assembled by God. Buildings have not been redeemed. It is people whom God redeemed with His own blood and assembled them together in the fullness of Christ. As believers gathered together–this assembly was indeed the church in view, as Paul writes.
An interesting note about this letter – the majority of Paul’s letters contain Paul’s name in the salutation and then some declaration of his apostleship and authority by the will of God, yet, to Philemon, Paul doesn’t make this kind of a statement – Paul refers to their common status as a prisoner FOR Christ. Why would Paul, who in Galatians 5, makes a great deal of our LIBERTY in Christ now refer to himself as Christ’s prisoner? This isn’t the only place he refers to himself as such either. Is Paul forgetting his liberty? Hardly.
Paul clearly knows, as the scriptures proclaim and as Paul wrote in Romans 13, that there is no power but of God. The Roman government may have imprisoned Paul, but their ability to do so was only because God allowed it. Therefore, almost as a slap to the Romans, Paul identifies the true power behind the allowance of His imprisonment. Recall Acts 16 when he was in jail and God broke down the prison walls – Paul counted it all joy when he fell into such scenarios because despite the scenario, God was still strong and faithful. Paul knew that God had the power to break him out of the Roman’s grip, yet determined to allow the Lord’s will be his. In other words, Paul would say, “I’m not a prisoner to you Romans – I’m in your prison because God is going to do something great. I’m his prisoner, having been arrested by His grace.”
2. Philemon’s Testimony
Philemon 1:4 I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers, 1:5 Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints; 1:6 That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. 1:7 For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.
Paul is very thankful for Philemon and what he means to him. Paul was not omniscient – his presence was limited to his physical locale, yet, when the good news of Christ permeated a believer and that believer was allowing Christ to influence, through him, other believers, it brought great joy to Paul. Paul is confident as well that as Philemon comes to understand the knowledge of Christ more fully, that the sharing of Philemon’s faith will increase in its effectiveness. This is a key principle for all believers. As we come to understand more fully what we are in Christ, it greatly impacts the sharing of faith. This isn’t a plea for Philemon to “add to his spiritual stature” that which wasn’t there already, but is a reckoning that what Philemon already had in Christ was a world still needing exploration and understanding. This is the scriptural presentation of “spiritual growth” or “growth in Christ.” It isn’t that we manifest additional spiritual-ness or additional Christ-ness, organically by our performance, but rather is that the eyes of our understanding become broader in their intake and brighter in their recognition. We grow by coming more in tune with what we already are, in Christ.
Paul, yet in prison at Rome, still describes the immense joy and comfort he has because of Philemon’s work, that it has been a source of refreshment for all saints that he came in contact with. Here is another aspect of our growth – as we grow to become more greatly aware of who we are in Christ, we naturally will be a source of refreshment to all believers we come in contact with because we will invariably influence their own growth.
Philemon 1:8 Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, 1:9 Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. 1:10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: 1:11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: 1:12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: 1:13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: 1:14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly. 1:15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; 1:16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? 1:17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. 1:18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; 1:19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides. 1:20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord. 1:21 Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say. 1:22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.
Paul says that although he possesses the authority in Christ to command Philemon to receive Onesimus, yet he would rather appeal to Philemon for love’s sake. This would suggest that perhaps there is history between Philemon and Onesimus, but Paul shows that through the course of events, Onesimus yielded to Christ, through Paul while Paul was in prison (hence the greater good that God was going to accomplish through Paul’s imprisonment mentioned above). Paul says that Onesimus was at one time useless to Philemon, but now in Christ, he is useful to both Philemon and Paul.
Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon as if he were sending his very heart – this is how much Onesimus means to Paul and therefore how much Philemon will benefit from Onesimus. Paul is surmising that perhaps all of this happened for just a season so that Philemon would gain Onesimus back, but not as a slave, but as a fellow in Christ. Here we see more about this history between these two. Philemon was the master; Onesimus, the slave. We don’t know what all happened, but either Onesimus was a lousy slave and Philemon let him go (and he invariably ended up in prison), or, Onesimus did something that would warrant a prison sentence. Either way, Philemon’s view of Onesimus needed to be reshaped by Paul, but, Paul again doesn’t do this by appealing to his authority in Christ, but through love – that Philemon would change his thinking, not by compulsion, but by his own accord. Philemon needed to accept that from a Romans standpoint, he may have been the master over Onesimus, but now in Christ, they are both equals with one Master–Christ.
Paul tells Philemon that if Philemon can accept Paul as a partner in Christ, then so too can he accept Onesimus. Paul then goes on to say that if Onesimus still owes Philemon anything, to put it on Paul’s tab. Paul wants the books cleared, as it were, between Philemon and Onesimus because of the great value their partnership would be. Paul would gladly repay any Onesimus’ debts to allow he and Philemon to reconcile, in Christ. Just as Philemon has refreshed the saints, Paul says that he will be refreshed in this. And, Paul knows that Philemon will go above and beyond in taking care of Onesimus, as is the character of Philemon. Paul wants Philemon to prepare a guest room for him and at this point, perhaps Paul was still optimistic that he would be released. Either way, Philemon’s primary purpose is to receive Onesimus and reconcile their relationship so they both can be effectual ministers of the faith of Christ.
Philemon 1:23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus; 1:24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers. 1:25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
[inscription] Written from Rome to Philemon, by Onesimus a servant.
Paul closes the letter by highlighting a few folks who were either with Paul or were still in contact with Paul, but ultimately closes the same way he opened the letter – by the Grace of God. And, as the inscription of the letter points out, not only was this letter to encourage Philemon to receive Onesimus, it was to be hand-delivered to Philemon by Onesimus himself.
Philemon, the master, must accept Onesimus, the slave, as an equal. This relationship is reconciled in Christ. You and I, as slaves to sin, have been reconciled to the Master, Jesus Christ. The letter to Philemon is not only a great account of brothers in Christ being reconciled, but is likewise a great picture for those who have come to Christ by faith. Believers are servants of the Master, yet, the paradox of our bondage is that they are shackles of liberty – which are no shackles at all. The servant in Death’s kingdom is under the repressive bonds of Sin; while the servant in Christ’s Kingdom is elevated to enjoy the Kingdom with His Master. The servant in Death’s kingdom works FOR Death, while the servant in Christ’s Kingdom works WITH the King.